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Russian gas: The search for alternatives to Russian energy pushes the West closer to authoritarian regimes | International

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Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has pushed the West to secure alternatives to Russian energy. The search for new partners has pushed the European Union to strengthen ties with authoritarian regimes and avoid condemning countries that violate human rights. The United States, meanwhile, has eased sanctions on Venezuela and warmed relations with Saudi Arabia.

Photo: Europa Press | Video: REUTERS

Even today, Russia supplies 40% of the natural gas that Europe imports – about 155 billion cubic meters per year. To find a way to stop paying Moscow for energy, countries like Germany and Italy have gone searching for alternatives in the liquefied natural gas market. They have been buying more gas than ever from Norway and the United Kingdom, bringing it in via ship or pipeline. But the largest increase in energy imports – up to 70% more than before the war – has been procured from suppliers who have a fairly bad record when it comes to democratic values and human rights.

In July, the European Commission reached an agreement with Azerbaijan to double gas imports from the energy-rich Caspian country. Purchases would go from 8.1 billion cubic meters per year in 2021 to about 20 million by 2027. The EU’s executive body has ignored NGOs that accuse the government in Baku of exerting massive repression against the country’s opposition forces.

The EU has also not hesitated to sign a memorandum with Egypt and Israel to import gas from those two countries, or from others in the region via Egyptian infrastructure. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), “under the government of President Sisi, Egypt is experiencing one of the worst human rights crises in decades.” In the case of Israel, the same organization denounces crimes against humanity against millions of Palestinians. This has not prevented the EU from considering the resumption of Association Agreement talks with what HRW considers to be an apartheid state.

The European Commission estimates that gas will account for 22% of the EU’s energy consumption until at least 2030. Hence, adequate supplies are required for the rest of this decade. Qatar is another country identified as being essential to guaranteeing the security of this supply, despite criticism of the labor and social conditions that prevail in that country, especially harsh for the immigrant population.

This is by no means the first time that the EU practices realpolitik without hesitation. In the migratory field, the 27 European partners did not hesitate to reach a billion-dollar agreement with Turkey so that President Erdogan would prevent the passage of Syrian refugees into EU territory. Brussels has also financed migration control in Libya, despite the inhumane treatment of sub-Saharan people who try to cross the Mediterranean from the coast of the African country.

US President Joe Biden in Saudi Arabia.
US President Joe Biden in Saudi Arabia.DPA vía Europa Press (DPA vía Europa Press)

The conflict with Russia has also led the Biden administration to drastically alter its relationships with other countries, namely Venezuela and Saudi Arabia. During the 2020 campaign that brought him to the White House, Biden vowed to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah.” This was due to the fact that US security agencies had confirmed that the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS), had ordered the 2018 execution and dismemberment of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi citizen and US resident.

Biden had to swallow his words two years later. On July 15, during a controversial tour of the Middle East, he stopped in Jeddah to meet with members of the Saudi regime, purportedly to discuss energy security, normalization with Israel and the threat of Iran. The American President fist-bumped MBS before the cameras.

With gas prices and inflation soaring, the automobile-dependent United States has, once again, gone looking for oil in unfriendly neighborhoods. After announcing new technological and defensive cooperation, the White House declared triumphantly that Saudi Arabia had committed to an “increase in production levels [of oil] by 50% above what was forecast for July and August.” This would allow for the oil market to “stabilize considerably.”

It is true that, just 100 days before America’s November midterm elections – where the Democratic Party could lose both the House and the Senate to the Republicans – gasoline prices seem to have levelled off. The national average of what is paid for a gallon has fallen by 70 cents since its peak, which was above $5 (€4.92) in early June. Analysts expect prices to continue to decline through the end of the year, although they are still high compared to 2021.

As part of that same policy of searching for strange bedfellows in the midst of an unprecedented energy crisis, officials from the Biden Administration travelled to Caracas in March to meet with members of Nicolás Maduro’s regime. Venezuelan crude skyrocketed in value following international sanctions being imposed on Russia. A few days after that visit, a US veto of Moscow’s oil was announced.

That initial trip was followed by other gestures to soften relations with the Maduro regime. The United States – which continues to recognize opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the legitimate president – has recently loosened some of its sanctions against Venezuela. According to a senior White House official, this has been done to encourage dialogue with the opposition. The timing, however, suggests that other matters were more pressing.

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Russian Intranasal Vaccine Effective Against All Coronavirus Strains – Developers

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MOSCOW (Sputnik) – The new Russian nasal vaccine against COVID-19 has demonstrated effectiveness against all variants of the coronavirus, Alexander Gintsburg, the director of Russia’s Gamaleya Research Center for Epidemiology and Microbiology, which developed the vaccine, told Sputnik.

“We’ve observed that the currently available and already registered intranasal vaccine is demonstrating high efficiency in protecting against all strains [of the coronavirus], forming mucosal immunity to the pathogen,” Gintsburg said.

The Russian Health Ministry registered the world’s first intranasal vaccine against COVID-19 in April.

Gintsburg told Sputnik in March that the new vaccine was effective against the Omicron variant. He said that the new vaccine was going to be used as a booster, in addition to the Sputnik V shots, until there was enough evidence that this new intranasal method gives the same level of protection as an injection.

In November of last year, Russian President Vladimir Putin offered to become a volunteer in the testing of the new vaccine and said that he felt no side effects after getting the procedure.

Russia became the first country in the world to register a vaccine against COVID-19, dubbed Sputnik V, in August 2020. The Russian Health Ministry has also registered a new, Sputnik M, vaccine for adolescents aged 12-17. Clinical trials of Sputnik shots for children aged 6-11 are currently underway in Moscow, according to Gintsburg.



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Nancy Pelosi: Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan revives the debate on international recognition of the island | International

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Nancy Pelosi’s brief and controversial visit to Taiwan could not have incited more contrasting reactions from the governments on either side of the Formosa Strait. President Tsai Ing-wen’s administration received the speaker of the United States House of Representatives with everything but a fireworks show, projecting flamboyant welcome messages on the island’s tallest building. Beijing, on the other hand, responded to what it considered a “blatant provocation” with a week of unprecedented military exercises. The superpower has also cut ties with Washington on key topics and recently published the first official report on Taiwan in two decades. Its aggressive reaction has brought to the forefront the debate about international recognition of the island, which functions as a state but is recognized by only 14 countries.

“My friends and I were very excited for a figure like this to come. It’s good to attract attention,” says Sun Hui’an by phone. “We are used to threats from China. We can’t let it dictate our lives,” adds the 29-year-old nurse.

Formosa was the place to which nationalist leaders and around a million people fled after the victory of the Communist Army in 1949 in the civil war. While in mainland China Mao Zedong declared the founding of the People’s Republic, Chiang Kai-shek, the leader of the Kuomintang (the formation that had presided over the country between 1927 and 1949), established a government in exile in Taiwan. Not until the 1970s did the United Nations and most Western countries began to recognize Beijing as the legitimate government of China, to the detriment of Taipei.

Taiwan is not a special administrative region of China like Hong Kong and Macau. It has a democratic government, a constitution and an army of 300,000 soldiers. It ranks as the 21st largest economy in the world, and it is the leading producer in the semiconductor industry. In 2019, it became the first place in Asia to legalize marriage between same-sex couples.

For the Chinese government, the island is a headache. The Asian giant considers Taiwan an inalienable part of its territory, whose “reunification” is, in the words of President Xi Jinping, “a historic mission of the Communist Party.” In recent years, especially since Tsai Ing-wen assumed the presidency in 2016, Chinese authorities have spoken with increasing assertiveness about a future unification, for which they have not ruled out the use of force. The rapport between the Tsai Administration and the United States, as evidenced by the recent visit of the American politician, has infuriated Beijing. On Wednesday, China published the first white paper on Taiwan in 22 years, drawing far more red lines than previous publications from 1993 and 2000.

Beijing’s discourse has never quite caught on across the strait. The two main Taiwanese parliamentary groups hold two radically opposed ideas about nationalism. While the Blue Coalition, led by the Kuomintang (KMT), aspires to an eventual unification with the People’s Republic, the Green Coalition, led by the Democratic Progressive Party (PDP), prefers to distance the island from Beijing.

Xulio Ríos, director of the Chinese Policy Observatory, points out that, however, that “the nuances are important”: “In the KMT there is everything from an intense blue –which defends unification and the idea of China – to a sky-blue, which understands that there are two different realities on both sides of the strait. The PDP advocated for independence, but today it does not defend it so aggressively and is committed to maintaining the status quo.”

Although historically opposed, the Kuomintang and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) have sometimes found ways to collaborate and prevent secession. KMT Vice Chairman Andrew Hsia is currently on a 17-day trip to the mainland to boost cross-border communication. “The cooperation between the KMT and the CCP really picked up momentum in 2008, with the victory of Ma Ying-jeou [KMT] in the elections. This made possible a rapprochement between the business and political elites of the mainland and Taiwan,” says Ríos.

Maintaining the status quo

That approach was cut short in 2014, when a group of protesters occupied parliament to denounce the approval, without bipartisan debate, of a controversial trade agreement with China. “The Sunflower Movement put the brakes on a whole process of rapprochement, which had generated the expectation of a possibility of peaceful unification through dialogue,” says Ríos. “After PDP’s victory with an absolute majority in 2016 is completely the opposite, a completely opposite path opened,” he adds.

Despite the two trends, the surveys carried out biannually by the Center for Electoral Studies of National Chengchi University (Taipei) since 1994 show that the vast majority of the 23 million Taiwanese are committed to maintaining the status quo. In its latest poll, from July, those in favor of unification are few (1.3%) and falling, while those in favor of declaring independence (5.1%) have also lost steam.

“My parents and I share the same opinion: we don’t care who rules Taiwan, but we don’t want to lose our freedoms. My grandparents and my parents had hopes for the principle of one country, two systems, but after what happened in Hong Kong we know that it is not viable,” says Wu, 32, who prefers to identify himself with a pseudonym.

Deng Xiaoping devised the one country, two systems model in the late 1980s. The goal was to ensure conformity to the idea that there is but one China, while ensuring that those areas that had developed their own economic systems could keep them under Chinese rule. The idea, originally conceived for Taiwan, has never been accepted by the island’s political parties.

Taiwanese fear that the idea’s acceptance will bring an erosion of democracy. China had agreed with the United Kingdom to guarantee Hong Kong’s system of freedoms until 2047. But after the 2019 protests, Beijing has become intransigent, with the approval of the draconian National Security Law and with an electoral reform that ended up placing Beijing-backed candidate John Lee as head of government in May.

“Once you visit the Chinese mainland, if you are green, you turn dark green. If you are blue, you go green,” Wu says, summarizing the Taiwanese’s misgivings. But given the obvious difference in opinion that has persisted in high political circles, the most intelligent response seems to be the one reflected by the polls. When asked what he would choose between preserving the status quo or moving towards complete autonomy from Beijing, Wu does not hesitate: “Independence does not deserve a war.”

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‘The Taliban no longer wanted to kill me. Now they wanted to marry me’ | Women’s rights and gender equality

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The day the Taliban entered my city last August, I started to receive renewed threats from Taliban commanders who wanted to punish me for my work as a news journalist. I was forced to leave my home that day, amid the loud explosions of an ongoing battle, hiding under a burqa, and praying to survive the journey.

What I did not know then was that this journey would continue for the next year.

Every few weeks, I moved from province to province, sometimes living in the heart of cities, other times hiding out in remote villages. In the first few days, I stayed at my uncle’s house in Sari Pul province, but once the local Taliban learned he was harbouring a fugitive, we had to leave in the middle of the night.

I went to Mazar-i-Sharif city in Balkh, and then took the road to Kabul, passing through Samangan, Baghlan and Parwan provinces. We were stopped at checkpoints in every province, and every time my heart would pound inside my chest. Luckily, I was under a chadari [the full Afghan burqa] and passed through checkpoints undetected.

In Kabul, the very air had shifted; there was fear and dread, alongside celebrations, as Taliban fighters from all over the country gathered in the capital. With the help of some friends, I was moved to a safe house, where I spent the next three months attempting to find ways to leave the country, but seldom even leaving the compound I was hiding in. The Taliban would launch random raids in the neighbourhood, looking for fugitives like me.

Somehow, our compound evaded suspicion, but when the number of raids increased, I knew I would have to leave Kabul soon.

In December 2021, I heard the news that my cousin had been killed by the Taliban. He was a policeman and often clashed with the Taliban during the years of conflict. Like me, he had been hiding for months, looking for a way to leave the country, but was caught and killed. I broke down, not just in grief over his loss, but also in incredible pain over what my life had turned into.

I decided to go back to my province, but did not go home because I didn’t want to risk my family’s lives. I hid at the home of another relative, but being so close to my family again made me homesick. I yearned for my mother’s embrace; I hadn’t seen her in months.

One day, I met my mother in a crowded marketplace. We hugged each other tight, and I cried, but she gave me strength. I knew I couldn’t give up now.

Over the next few months, I started weaving carpets to help support myself and my family. Since the Taliban takeover, we had not only lost income but my life in exile was costing my parents, who had already sacrificed so much to raise me and now had to support me. It was hard labour, and I developed rashes and sores on my hands, but it helped my family and took my mind off the threats I was still receiving.

Then the threats from the Taliban changed. They no longer wanted to kill me. They wanted me to marry one of their commanders. They reached out to my parents and community elders, pressuring them to give me away in marriage.

I couldn’t believe it was now happening to me. In the past, I covered stories of the Taliban imposing forced marriages on young girls. Now I was one of the women I had reported about last year.

When I refused, they sent me photos of AK-47s and pistols, threatening to kidnap me, and kill my parents. I blocked their numbers and deleted WhatsApp but they still found ways to send me threats. Eventually, I took out my sim card and broke it into pieces. I was terrified of what they would do to me, or worse, to my family.

So in July, with the help of friends, I made one more attempt to leave the country. First, with the help of my father, I moved to Mazar-i-Sharif, and then we took the road to Kabul again. I carried medical certificates, and every time we were stopped, we would say I was going to Kabul for treatment. I was nervous throughout the journey because the Taliban were more brutal than before.

Eventually we made it to Kabul, where I met with other women like myself. Together, under the pretext of seeking medical help, we were able to get on a flight leaving for a neighbouring country.

I am somewhat safer now, but not out of danger. I barely sleep because I fear for my family, who are still in Afghanistan. They are already being shamed because I ran away. A young unmarried daughter leaving by herself is considered very dishonourable in Afghan culture.

But I am fortunate in the support I have received from my parents, at great personal risk. They always prioritised my passion, my happiness, and now my security and future. Contrary to popular belief, many Afghan fathers would, like mine, rather face societal dishonour and threats than deny their daughters opportunities for a better future.

I appeal to our international allies to empower such Afghan families, particularly the women. We worked so hard to attain values of equality and freedom and have lost the most in the last year. But we are still resisting, and we are seeking allies to support us and amplify our voices.

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